Bread, blood, and life

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentacost

We have heard today, probably one of the most truthful things ever written in the bible. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Now there are many times when I don’t understand all that is going on, or don’t get the message, and far too many times that I relate better with the Pharisee’s, the older brother, or the ones that says, “come on Jesus, show us another trick.” Yet, somehow, this statement of Jesus eat my body and drink my blood, when taken literally, it certainly makes my nose turn up and say, no thanks I’m full! After which Jesus casually asks, does this offend you? The answer to that question is simply – Yes! Eat my body, drink my blood. Is this the original Buffy or prelude to the Twilight saga, and vampire phenomenon that is sweeping teenage drama’s. I think not, but it is offensive. Jewish Law, Jewish tradition was based around the Torah. Lovely leviticus had every rule and ritual laid out. If the 10 Commandments are the ‘quick set up’ version of the Law, Leviticus is the 400 page instruction and operations manual for how to live as a chosen people. It states in Chapter 17 “Therefore I have said to the people of Israel: No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any alien who resides among you eat blood. And anyone of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside among them, who hunts down an animal or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.

Pretty straight forward if you ask me. This instruction was deeply ingrained in the daily life of the Jew. It would have been put into play at every hunt, every feast preparation, all parts of daily life. It was such a basic law, and so much a part of the ancient Jewish people, that it’s still a cornerstone of modern Kosher eating.

So, when Jesus said that in order to inherit eternal life you must drink his blood, it was very provocative language that seemed to go against all biblical teaching, like nails on a chalkboard for those listening. As we heard it made some of them question whether they could still follow him, and so many turned away from Jesus. Even his closest followers did a double-take. What we don’t often understand is that to modern ears, or those who prefer the food cooked, the thought of eating raw meat or drinking blood, not only sounds pretty disgusting, but a potential health hazard. However, blood wasn’t forbidden territory for being dirty, but for being holy. It was understood that the deepest essence of a creature was contained in the blood that flowed through its veins. So, when Jesus says that his followers are to drink his blood, what he’s saying in the ancient biblical language of Leviticus is: take my life, and pour it into your bodies, your lives, your souls. Jesus was suggesting that people absorb something holy, and ingest it such a way that it becomes involved with every fibre and part of their being. Not only was this a bit shocking, it was asking them to be like him, and allow themselves to be transformed. Remembering that this piece comes after the feeding of the multitude, when the crowd realised that Jesus was demanding profound inner transformation and that he was not just offering customer service, they lost interest.

It has taken centuries of theological debate and theories for people to wrap their head around this. The first 400 years of the church’s life were largely given over to debates about the meaning and implications of confessing Jesus as Saviour, Lord and Son of God, and as always, the answers were shaped by the believers’ contexts at that time Greek philosophy. The controversies of the early years of the church’s life were about what sort of being Jesus was “fully human, fully God,” and how Jesus was related to God the Father. These were important topics when deciding how the creeds were written. All the while Christians were practicing Eucharist with bread and wine, using the terms, body and blood. One of the accusations of early christians was that they were cannibalistic.

It was during the early part of the middle ages that the debates about the bread, wine, body and blood of the Last Supper all came about. The doctrine of divine mystery, where the bread and wine are changed into the physical being and blood of Christ were discussed and the word ‘transubstantiation’ was accepted during this time in order to safeguard Christ’s presence as a literal truth, that was around the 1100’s. The Protestant reformation in Europe rejected that and recognised the meal as being held as a Memorial of the Last Supper, as it is done in remembrance of me. During the English Reformation when the Anglican church came into being, as only the English can, they held the middle ground. Our balance of high and low doctrines allows for all understandings. The test for any new priest is what do you do when you spill it. If you have been at SBT for a while, you will remember us trying to have different stations during communion. On one occasion I was at the back of the church getting ready to administer the bread. As it was a fairly new practice to be at the back I indicated to people to form the circle. As I lifted up my arm, the man holding the bowl of wine was right behind me. He got covered. Lots of quick apologies, but we needed to serve and so we did. Afterwards I went to Jamie and said, “I have just thrown Jesus all over Robert. What shall I do?” Jamie smiled and quoted a friend Bob Webster, another Priest in the Diocese, who says, “if Jesus can figure out how to get into the wine, he can also get out.” And we left it at that. Jamie was not being glib or dismissing this as of no consequence, but was also not going to loose sleep over it either.
Back to John. After Jesus has made this statement, many people leave, followers, who “turned back and no longer went about with him. The group was getting smaller as the stakes were getting higher. Jesus then turns to the Twelve and says, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter plays the spokesperson, just as he does in the other Gospels: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I don’t see this as a resignation statement, as though there is nothing else better for me at the moment, so I’ll stick around. At some level Peter’s internal transformation was on it’s way, it was to be tested for sure, but it was happening for him. I believe that each time we gather around the table that internal transformation is happening for us. Each time we eat after having been told that this is the body of Christ broken for you, we are allowing the transforming presence of Christ into our lives. The history books show that long before Christians portrayed Christ crucified they showed him breaking bread, obviously a powerful motif and demonstrative image of what Jesus was really about. Jesus and bread, eating and feeding, table fellowship and faith, food and life — these things go together. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats me will live because of me.” Blessed are we if we do not take offense but are transformed by these words and by this action. AMEN

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